Saving the Meishan Pig and Ossabaw Island Hog
Working to Preserve Two Heritage Pig Breeds
The Meishan and Ossabaw pig breeds are two very dissimilar breeds. They are both at a critical juncture in their history. While one breed is from the United States, the other originated in China more than 4,000 years ago. One lives a sedentary lifestyle while the other enjoys rooting throughout the day.
Ossabaw Island Hogs
The Ossabaw breed is biologically unique, because of living in isolation for hundreds of years on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia. According to the Livestock Conservancy, they have been shaped by natural selection in a challenging environment known for heat, humidity, and seasonal scarcity of food. Ossabaws developed the ability to survive on slim pickings. They developed a gene which allows them to store a lot of fat when times are good. And because of this, you must be careful to not overfeed them. They are domesticated but still have the qualities of the wild boar, which allows them to be more self-sufficient than other breeds.
Patrick Meszaros has been raising Ossabaw Island hogs for a little more than three years. Starting with one breeding pair, his sow has farrowed three times.
“I researched various pig breeds for my farm prior to selecting the Ossabaw breed. I chose the Ossabaw Island hog primarily for its size and quality of meat,” said Meszaros.
Meszaros finds the meat richer and juicer than the dry pink meat you get with a commercially raised hog. “Basically, it is delicious,” he explains.
“Ossabaws are an active breed and they love to root. They have a very long snout and there is a reason for that as they are living rototillers. They are excellent foragers and will eat any and all kinds of nuts, including black walnuts. They eat grass, clover, and pretty much any plant they can uproot,” said Meszaros. “I find them great for my small farm and have used them to till up garden plots.”
He says his sow is an excellent mother and has not needed any help farrowing. He also noted that they have tolerated the cold well during their northern Illinois winters.
Marc Mousseau, Heritage Stockman at Hamthropology located in Milledgeville, GA has been raising the breed for almost five years with his wife Lydia. They currently have around a third of the world’s breeding stock, making them the largest conservation herd of non-hybridized Ossabaw Island pigs.
And like Meszaros, Mousseau was looking to get involved in the heritage pork industry on a smaller scale. While researching breeds, Marc uncovered a lot of good breeds, but nothing exceptional until the Ossabaw. “The Ossabaw has this genetic foundation in addition to boasting unsaturated fat along with high omega 3 and oleic acids. Combining the characteristics of their pork with the climate and forage of the southeast, we were confident we could produce an exceptional hog. It took a little more brain-power to dial in on the details, but we have been able to achieve an exceptional full-spectrum product,” said Mousseau.
“Fabulous, dark red muscle and snow white fat requires little more than salt and pepper. Whole smoked Ossabaws are the favorites of some well-known pit-masters. Beyond the standard costs, the Ossabaw also produces a fabulous snow white lard that when rendered, in my opinion, exceeds all other lards,” added Mousseau.
For charcuterie enthusiasts, the Ossabaw dry cured cuts earn the title “World Class American Heritage Pork.” There is a challenge, however. When consumers choose a $1.99 loin at the grocery store over the more expensive heritage meat, they must remember it is a $1.99 for a reason.
“It was genetically designed to grow fast. These facilities do not care about nutrition or flavor profile. Until the consumer is educated, the small farmer trying to make a living will continue to struggle,” said Mousseau.
“In order to improve the breed, we must ‘serve-to-preserve’ those animals that are not considered for future breeding. We’ve figured out how to deliver a fatty pig that is not obese which means more sellable cuts for the chefs.”
Meishan pigs have recently been added to the Conservation Priority List of The Livestock Conservancy, meaning the breed is just now able to bring on new stewards to help.
Originating in China over 4,000 years ago, this breed suffered for 27 years in genetic isolation in three research facilities here in the United States. With their prominent face fat folds which increase with age, this breed is an excellent addition to many farm models, and not just because they are charming.
“Their docile, almost sedentary nature, their limited impact on pastures, and their willingness to cohabitate with other types of livestock including poultry and waterfowl make them a great choice,” said Rico Silvera, President of the American Meishan breeders Association and owner of the most genetically diverse herd of Meishan pigs outside of China. “In addition, their delicious red meat pork with intense micro-marbling means those farmers who select Meishan have a product that differentiates them from mass market white meat pork.”
The Meishan are a great pasture pig for the small and medium-sized landholder. Unlike some heritage breed choices, their medium size, reasonable growth rate, prolificacy, and great mothering skills mean higher ratios of weaned piglets per breeder with lower breeder maintenance costs. Meishan can have two litters per year and an average of 14 to 16 piglets per litter. The record was 28. Their fertility is considered hyper-prolific and their offspring survivability is considered excellent compared to other breeds.
Silvera’s dedication to the breed has taken him to all three of the original research facilities and even to Huazhong Agricultural University in China.
Other breeds that are on the Conservation Priority List from The Livestock Conservancy include the Mulefoot hog, which is also listed as Critical and the Gloucestershire Old Spot is listed as Threatened. Agriculturalists for centuries have been ambassadors for the various heritage breeds.
What heritage breed are you going to conserve?